We all know the names of superstars. We all know the names of supermodels. But do we, any of us, know the names of any superagents, much less the first one? Maybe we know Michael Ovitz because he made so much news as his ship sank. Anyone else?
If you were into the making of movies in the 1970s, you know who Sue Mengers was. In her own way, she was as big a star as the stars she represented, and she represented a skyfull. Barbra Streisand. Ryan O’Neal. Candice Bergen. Faye Dunaway. Michael Caine. And that’s just for starters.
At that period time, when Hollywood agents brokered the deals for actors and actresses, Mengers brokered the deals for the biggest, best, and most bankable stars. She was mercurial, relentless, tough, and insanely successful and powerful. Can I Go Now is Mengers’ story, a fascinating look behind the Hollywood curtain. We’ve all read books about how this or that movie got made. Can I Go Now: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent (Viking), however, is a book about how movies — especially many of the most successful movies of the late ‘60s and ‘70s — got made. Except that instead of telling the stories about what happened behind the scenes while the cameras were rolling, this is about what happened before the cameras rolled. It’s about the deals that let them roll at all.
It’s got the romantic and sexual relationships; back-room, back-scratching deals; fights and make-up projects; and more. But it’s also the compelling story of a Jewish girl from the east who made it in the biggest, showiest business of all. And didn’t just make it, but made it her own.
By all reports, Sue Mengers was brash, rude, playful, and foul-mouthed. She was loving protector, loyal friend, and task-master. She smoked pot as if it were going out of style, even as it was coming into style. At the risk of mixing my references, she collected stars and knew all about them in a way that would’ve made Carl Sagan’s head spin. In a town filled with kings, she was the only queen.
As much as her deals made her clients, they made her. Until one of them unmade her. The end began when she made a deal to help her husband, French filmmaker Jean-Claude Tramont, who was directing a small Hollywood film called All Night Long. At one point, to broker him a better position in Hollywood, Mengers suggested that her biggest and most important client, Barbra Streisand, take over for the film’s lead actress. It took some doing, some pushing, her usual Mengering, let’s say, but she got Streisand into the film, ballooning the film’s budget and expectations. When it failed—and it failed big—it cost Mengers Streisand. And for Mengers, losing Streisand meant she was suddenly accountable for years of brashness, years of foul-mouthed deal-making and burned bridges. Now there were lots of pipers to pay.
Mengers’ rocketship rise was all about her putting clients first. Her downfall was all about the one time she put family first. Though a biography, Can I Go Now reads in some ways like a Jacqueline Susann novel, all showbiz and personality and back-stabbing and bad decisions. It’s almost a real-life Valley of the Dolls. Mengers, I think, would be okay with that. ◊